The material ecologies of culture

Fernando Dominguez, The Open University and NYU
Have a look at the picture above and take a guess. Upon first impression, the building on the picture can appear to be a disused factory, a high-security intelligence facility or even a nuclear bunker. And although it could well be any of those things, it is none of them. This building is, in fact, a storage facility for artworks. It is part of the Celeste Bartos Center, the film preservation center the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) built about a decade ago in a small rural community in Pennsylvania to store the museum’s film and video art collection, one of the largest and most important in the world. Behind the thick concrete walls, CCTV cameras and metal blinds, there are tens of thousand of old cellulose nitrate films, including some of the first silent films ever made as well as original copies of some of the finest Hollywood classics of the 30s and 40s.
I first encountered this building as part of the ethnography I’m currently conducing at MoMA studying contemporary practices of art conservation. One of the main interests of this project is to explore what I’d like to call the ‘material ecologies’ of culture, that is, the different infrastructures, technologies, practices and forms of containment that operate (often behind the curtains) to produce, and crucially, sustain different cultural forms, values and meanings. The reason why I’d like to draw your attention to the Celeste Bartos Center is because it constitutes a good illustration of the type of material ecologies that are typically required to contain and stabilize contemporary (Western) art.
Broadly defined, the mission of the Center is to maintain the intelligibility of artworks qua meaningful and valuable cultural objects. In spite of the illusion of fixity and timelessness that typically surround these artifacts, artworks are never still. They are always ‘on the move’ as parts of the complex and ever-changing field of forces emerging from the interactions between the material components of these artifacts and the changing environments in which they are placed. As temperature, humidity and light vary, artworks move and evolve: their colors change and whither, their materials expand and contract, and the original identity between material form and artist’s intention is eroded. As this process of change and transformation unfolds over time, forms corrode, meanings fade away and these artifacts risk losing their ‘art’ status to become valueless ‘natural’ objects. Contrary to what one might expect, this risk is nowhere more evident than in contemporary cultural artifacts. Indeed, while it is possible to successfully store, preserve and display valuable cultural artifacts produced centuries and even millennia ago, preserving cultural artifacts produced just a few decades ago, like video art, photography or film, poses formidable challenges. One of the reasons for this is that a large part of contemporary culture is dependent on very ephemeral and unstable materials. For example, the average life span of the VHS tapes that were so popular just over a decade ago is of just 10 years and that of CDs and DVDs upon which much of contemporary culture is stored right now, is of just over 15 years in normal room conditions. The case of film is even more dramatic. It only takes 10 years for early color prints to lose their dyes, and between 30 and 50 years for contemporary color prints. According to different estimates, around 85% of the silent films and around 50% of the sound films made in the US before 1950 are believed to be irremediably lost.
On the left, an example of dye fading in color prints. On the right, an example of acetate decomposition.
The stabilization of these artifacts demands the construction of specially designed ‘material ecologies’ capable of preserving their status as meaningful and valuable cultural objects. This, however, not only requires engineering environments that are able to preserve the physical integrity of these artifacts but also, and more importantly, that are capable of producing and sustaining specific forms of evidence and value. In the case of Western art systems, where artworks are typically seen as materialization of the artist’s unique self and creative agency, this means creating environments in which artifacts remain truthful indexes of their author’s original intentions. In other words, if these videos and films are to retain their cultural (and economic) value, they must remain legible as the original products of a subjective agency. The production of this specific form of legibility requires a rather complex, and expensive, set of infrastructural and technological devices, like the Celeste Bartos Center. The building has been explicitly designed to prevent natural processes (like oxidation, emulsion, UV radiations or acetate decomposition) from altering the original connection between material form and intention. To accomplish this, the building is built following a Russian-doll structure containing an ‘outer’ building and, within it, a self-contained ‘inner’ building storing the different films, videos and tapes. The ‘outer building’ works as a technological skin that regulates the interaction between inside and outside and protects the environment enveloping the ‘inner’ building.
fPic4.JPG On the left, some of the devices that regulate the exchange between external and internal environments. Below, part of the Humidity, Ventilation and Air Condition (HAVC) system that stabilizes the climatic conditions of the internal environment. And, a view of the buffer zone between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ buildings.
The ‘inner building’ is structured as a giant technological beehive containing dozes of micro-ecologies especially designed to stabilize each specific type of material. For example, black and white prints are stored in flat-shelving units at 45ºF (7ºC) and 30% RH to prevent acetate decomposition. Pic5.jpgfPic6.jpg
Computerized HAVC devices that control climatic conditions for each vault
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Some examples of the different ‘material ecologies’ devised to stabilize different kinds of artifacts.
And yet, despite this impressive constellation of technological and architectural devices, these material ecologies are never fully stabilized. As one of the conservators put it: “nature is constantly encroaching upon us”. When I visited the Celeste Bartos Film Center—after a particularly hot summer in Pennsylvania—, the HVAC system was having a hard time in keeping stable the different microenvironments. Overpowered by external temperatures, the machines barely managed to generate stable environments above the desired targets of humidity and temperature. Maintaining these material ecologies requires an ongoing and never-ending work of care and repair: the walls need to be periodically re-insulated, the doors and windows resealed, the HVAC machines repaired and replaced, the computer software & hardware updated…
Despite their importance, the production and sustenance of these material ecologies have been topics largely neglected in the study of art. For the most part, the attention of scholars has been directed to the artifacts themselves and has neglected the complex networks of infrastructures, technologies, knowledge and practices that are involved in producing and sustaining conditions of visibility and intelligibly of these objects. Or to put it in Goffmanian terms, the attention has been focused on the art’s “frontstage”, and has neglected the backstage that makes this frontstage possible. The aim of my research is, precisely, to bring this backstage out into the light and to make it the object of systematic and sustained attention. In so doing, I hope to be able to throw some light not only on the specific processes through which the ‘material ecologies’ of culture are generated and sustained but also on the wider role they play in the stabilization and (re)production of specific forms of cultural value meanings and memories.